As someone who prides himself on playing fair strategies, I look to identify what I believe to be the strongest standalone cards in a format rather than the most synergistic piles of cards. The Esper Control deck I designed and piloted to a top 8 finish at the NRG Pioneer 5K in Lansing, Michigan is a quintessential “good stuff” deck. Most recently, I won a Regional Championship Qualifier with my latest version.
I was naturally drawn to UW Control, as it was firmly established as the control deck of the format. I quickly identified that UW had great incentive to play it: The strongest Planewalkers in the format, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and The Wandering Emperor.
While I was quickly drawn to the cards above, spells like March of Otherworldly Light, Portable Hole, Farewell, and Fateful Absence left much to be desired. It felt like while this strategy had powerful haymakers, the interaction spells were lacking. This realization led me to look to other colors for support.
Black stood out as both Fatal Push and Thoughtseize are top tier forms of interaction and black is a color that supports my play style. While 3-color mana bases tend to have consistency issues, the recent printing of Raffine’s Tower goes a long way in helping me to cast my spells.
With that, Esper Yorion Control was born:
My build of Esper looks to answer popular threats of the format with efficient interaction to keep the battlefield clear long enough for my Planewalkers to dominate the game.
The greatest draw to play black is the incredible removal suite.
Fatal Push is the best of the bunch as it’s clean, cheap, instant-speed removal in a format flush with great targets. Enabling Revolt scales up to hit bigger threats and here are some of the most common ways to Revolt: Sacrificing omen of the sea, chump blocking with a samurai token, legend ruling a planeswalker, flickering a permanent with Yorion.
Bloodchief’s Thirst is a 5th fatal push that doubles as an overcosted answer to Planewalkers.
Vanishing Verse is a cheap removal spell for creatures that answers other problem permanents such as Planewalkers. Its exile clause is well positioned in a format with staples such as Arclight Phoenix, Old-Growth Troll, Cavalier of Thorns, and Cauldron Familiar.
Power Word Kill is the best positioned “Doom Blade” variant in Pioneer.
Void Rend trades mana efficiency for ultimate versatility. It destroys anything that isn’t a creature-land at instant speed. It notably covers targets Vanishing Verse misses like Karn The Great Creator, Kiora Behemoth Beckoner, and Witch’s Oven. The uncounterable clause can be relevant in matchups like UW Control and Mono Blue Spirits and ignores the Ward cost on cards like Graveyard Trespasser.
As we play many targeted removal spells, we don’t lean on drawing sweepers as heavily as UW Control does but having a few Verdicts is still great in matchups like humans, spirits, and heroic.
Esper is good at answering creatures, so Dovin’s Veto helps cover against non-creature spells.
You typically want to save Veto for powerful card advantage spells like Treasure Cruise, Pieces of the Puzzle, Light Up the Stage, Storm the Festival, and most Planeswalkers.
Censor provides cheap disruption that has a very low floor with a 1 mana cycle cost. I cycle this card often to hit land drops.
In a format that does not have a great counterspell at 2 mana, Absorb is the best 3 mana counterspell as the 3 life goes a long way in a control deck; especially one playing 10 shocklands.
Any good control deck needs to have the right cards at the right time and extra cards to come over the top and Esper operates on the same principle.
I would play 6+ copies of Omen of the Sea if I could.
It’s the glue that holds a deck together that otherwise has little cheap card selection. It helps you dig for cards that you want for specific matchups and sticks around to make Yorion’s ETB “flashback” the spell.
Search For Azcanta is a new addition with credit to friend and deck building collaborator Zach Allen.
It’s a cheap way to churn through your library for specific cards with a transformation that will bury your opponents in card advantage. What sold me on this card was how good it is against RB Midrange and UR Phoenix, two decks that cannot get it off the battlefield.
Memory Deluge is a mid-to-late game haymaker. It digs for your best spells and is an implied 4-for-1. It pairs nicely with The Wandering Emperor for the turn 4 instant speed squeeze and puts extra mana from Teferi, Hero of Dominaria to good use.
Cling to Dust is a unique effect that is a perfect 1-off. It can deal with problem cards out of graveyards (Arclight Phoenix, Kroxa, and Storm the Festival), generate late game value, and gain life.
Our removal package and the inherent ability of Planeswalkers to generate cascading card advantage makes them the logical threat package for a Pioneer control deck.
The Wandering Emperor’s ability to be a threat and answer without tapping out makes it the best Planeswalker printed for control decks in quite some time. Threatening to exile large attacking creatures or ambush small ones with an instant speed Samurai makes this card a nightmare to play against. Keep in mind if you flicker it with Yorion, you can activate its loyalty ability in the end step.
Kaya, Orzhov Usurper is well positioned as a repeatable answer to small creatures that stabilizes your life total. It attacks graveyards in a metagame where many decks generate value out of the yard.
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is the Linchpin of the deck and the ultimate win condition. Use removal and counter magic to survive long enough to resolve Teferi and turn the corner.
Building the mana base has been an iterative process and it has changed several times since the deck’s inception. It boils down to 3 fundamental concepts:
We want lands that tap for black untapped in the early game, to cast removal and discard when we need it.
We want lands that tap for blue and white mana untapped on turn 3 and later, to cast Absorb, Supreme Verdict, and The Wandering Emperor on curve.
We want to minimize the number of lands that you play that tap for 1 color of mana. This is because the deck is very color intensive and you need to be able to go from casting a Fatal Push on turn 1 to an Absorb on turn 3.
Aether Gust is an incredibly versatile 2-color hoser. A great option against decks like Mono Green, Mono Red, and Red Black Midrange.
Malevolent hermit takes a bread and butter sideboard card like Negate and gives it another angle of attack. It is often a 2-for-1 with a flip side that must be answered in counterspell mirrors. This can often be exploitative as most opponents will board out removal.
More of this effect in the matchups where it shines.
Thoughtseize adds an important axis of interaction to the deck. With the options for counterspells being narrow and overcosted in Pioneer, having Thoughtseize gives you an excellent tool for combating control and combo decks.
Another credit to teammate Zach Allen, Go Blank is a card that shines in grindy matchups with the exile effect being an excellent tool against graveyard based decks like Phoenix and Greasefang without having to play a one-dimensional piece of sideboard hate like Rest in Peace.
More removal for matchups where we want it. Portable hole has the distinction of being able to hit noncreature permanents like Witch’s Oven and Wolfwillow Haven. Portable Hole was selected over other removal options because it’s another answer to indestructible threats such as Adanto’s Vanguard out of decks like RW Heroic.
Out: 1xCling to Dust, 2xCensor, 1xKaya, Orzhov Usurper, 3xWandering Emperor 1xSupreme Verdict
In: 3xAether Gust, 3xThoughtseize, 1xDovin’s Veto, 1xGo Blank
On the draw: -2 Power Word Kill, +2 Portable Hole
Out: 1xKaya, Orzhov Usurper, 2xAbsorb, 1xBloodchief’s Thirst, 1xSupreme Verdict, 1xPlains
In: 3xAether Gust, 3xGo Blank
Out: 4xFatal Push, 2xPower Word Kill, 3xSupreme Verdict
In: 2xMalevolent Hermit, 3xGo Blank, 3xThoughtseize, 1xDovin’s Veto
Out: 1xBloodchief’s Thirst, 1xFatal push, 3xSupreme Verdict, 4xThe Wandering Emperor
In: 2xMalevolent Hermit, 3xGo Blank, 3xThoughtseize, 1xDovin’s Veto
Out: 1xCling to Dust, 2xDovin’s Veto, 2xAbsorb, 1xKaya, Orzhov Usurper, 1xTeferi, Hero of Dominaria
In: 2xMalevolent Hermit, 2xPortable Hole, 3xThoughtseize
Out: 1xCling to Dust, 4xAbsorb, 2xCensor, 1xMemory Deluge
In: 3xAether gust, 3xThoughtseize, 2xPortable Hole
Well that’s it for me, folks! I appreciate everyone who took the time to check out my first article.